The door is opening for bio-based plastics, pushed by higher prices for petroleum-based resins and improved performance from plastics made from natural resources.
But the events of the next year or two will determine if that door opens wider or shrinks to a crack revealing only an eco-friendly niche market.
Speakers at Commercializing Bioresins 2005, a conference held Nov. 7-9 in Atlanta, tackled the topic, combining issues as diverse as recycling, corn prices and consumer preferences.
All agreed the global bio-based resins market is set to grow. Global capacity is around 800 million pounds today, but based on announced projects, is set to top 1.3 billion pounds by 2008, according to Harald Kaeb, chairman of Biologisch Abbaubare Werkstoffe eV (IBAW), a Berlin-based international trade group of bio-based plastics makers and users.
IBAW's membership includes materials makers BASF AG and PolyOne Corp., as well as consumer giants Groupe Danone, Procter & Gamble Co. and Kraft Foods Inc. Other companies incorporating bio-based plastics into their products, according to Kaeb, are Sony Corp. and Nestle AG.
Prices for two major types of bio-based resins - polylactide and aliphatic aromatic copolyester - also have dropped considerably since 1999, bringing them closer to those of commodity plastics, said Greg Bohlmann, assistant director of the process economics program at SRI Consulting in Menlo Park, Calif.
Commodity resin prices have climbed steadily since 2003 as oil and natural gas prices have surged.
``Historically, pricing had been the biggest barrier,'' Bohlmann said. ``And new technology should further allow [bio-based resin makers] to reduce costs.''
Bohlmann added that using materials such as corn stover, wheat straw and rice straw - which remain in fields after crops are harvested - as resin feedstocks also could increase productivity and economic performance.
The Department of Agriculture is doing its part to aid growth of the bio-based resin market by proposing 36 agricultural products for its list of approved environmentally sustainable products. The first six of those were approved in July, according to Marvin Duncan, a senior agricultural economist with the department.
Products on the list can be used in urethane coatings for roofs and coatings for water tanks, as well as in bedding, bed linens and towels.
``The petrochemical industry has told us that the U.S. may not be world-competitive on oil and natural gas,'' Duncan said. ``But we will be on bio-based sources.''
A recent survey of more than 100 American investors and research analysts - conducted by Daniel Robin of Santa Cruz, Calif., investment firm Integrated Investments International Inc. - showed some confusion over the terminology used in the bio-based resin industry.
However, the survey also showed a growing interest in the field among venture capital and private equity firms. In the second quarter of 2005, $370 million - about 6 percent of all U.S. venture capital investment - went into bio-based resins and other so-called ``clean technology'' companies.
``Bio-resin ventures are ripe for investment because of the coming together of technological, environmental and economic forces,'' Robin said.
To date, proof of the success of products made from bio-based resins can be found more easily in Europe, where packaging distributor NNZ BV has seen increased demand for its Okopack-brand line of bioplastic films, trays and netting.
``Some customers want to use [Okopack] because it's bio, some want to use it because it increases shelf life - they don't care if it's bio,'' said Atussa Sarvestani, biodegradable packaging manager with NNZ, which is based in Groningen, the Netherlands.